Bishop Morlino and the Mystery of Madison
Frank Cocozzelli printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Thu Mar 17, 2011 at 03:41:09 PM EST
Catholic social teaching  has recognized the right of workers to organize since Pope Leo XIII's 1891papal encyclical Rerum Novarum.  This was soon followed by the the American bishops' groundbreaking Bishops' Program of Social Reconstruction (ghostwritten for them by Monsignor John A. Ryan). The bishops declared that they recognized "the right of labor to organize; and to deal with employers through its chosen representatives..."

Unsurprisingly, Catholics in America have long been front and center in organized labor, from the old Knights of Labor; the Italian seamstresses of the ILGWU to  Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers, and Richard Trumka of the AFL-CIO. The rights and well being of working people is unquestionably a Catholic issue.

That is why the silence of Bishop Robert Morlino Madison, Wisconsin -- except to call for neutrality as public employees struggle to maintain the right to collectively bargain -- has been a mystery.

Morlino's stance contrasts sharply with the statement from Jerome E. Listecki, the Archbishop of Milwaukee,  Listecki issued a statement that quoted directly from the recent papal encyclical (which had been criticized by Catholic conservatives such as George Weigel): Caritas in veritate:

The repeated calls issued within the Church's social doctrine, beginning with Rerum Novarum [60], for the promotion of workers' associations that can defend their rights must therefore be honored today even more than in the past, as a prompt and far-sighted response to the urgent need for new forms of cooperation at the international level, as well as the local level

A similar statement of support was issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

But Bishop Morlino framed his  statement differently.  Entitled "Clarifying the Fairness Issue," he stressed taking "a neutral stance." .

As if on cue, the Catholic Right spin machine kicked into high gear. Father Robert Sirico, head of the Acton Institute joined in Morlino's wet blanket brigade, claiming: "As the social-teaching tradition has stated consistently, the Church has not (sic) specific economic or political policy prescriptions to offer."

Piet Levy, a writer for Religion News Service saw the situation clearly.  In an article entitled, "Wisconsin Dispute Exposes Catholic Split on Unions," Levy  wrote:  

Morlino, writing in his diocesan newspaper, The Catholic Herald, said he and the statewide Wisconsin Catholic Conference were neutral, even though the Catholic Church has long sided with the rights of unionized workers.

Levy noted Morlino's standing among the Catholic Right:

To be sure, Morlino has emerged as a hero of the Catholic right. In the heat of the 2008 campaign, he blasted vice presidential nominee Joe Biden and then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi for "stepping on the pope's turf -- and mine" in appealing to church fathers for their support of abortion rights.

In 2009, Morlino fired a female church worker for using male and female imagery for God in her 2003 Master's thesis.

Levy also cited Marquette University political science professor Michael Fleet's critique of the bishop's motives:

"Obviously (Morlino) wouldn't have written (his letter) unless some clarification or reframing was necessary," he said. "If you think about it, Morlino would write a short letter if he agreed with Listecki, but he wrote a longer letter articulating how (Listecki's statement) should be understood."

In his "clarifying" statement Morlino commented, "Believe it or not, I frequently try to avoid weighing in-on certain situations."  (That statement is more laughable than he could have ever imagined.)

The mystery of Madison lingered until the publication of an interview with Fr. Sirico revealed what may really be going on:  

Father Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Institute, a free-market think tank, suggested that the bishops' response to the union protests marked a new era of episcopal leadership and a more nuanced understanding of economic realities in the United States.

He noted that both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI had sought to reorient an overly politicized approach to social justice concerns and that new Catholic leaders had responded to this new direction. "Politics is not the governing hermeneutic of the Church," said Father Sirico, "but for many years politics was the whole paradigm through which everything was seen."

But he also suggested the Wisconsin bishops' stance implicitly acknowledged "the changing reality of the American Catholic population as a whole. "The only sector of union membership that is growing is public unions," he said. "That is highly problematic from a Catholic point of view, because these public unions publicly favor abortion rights and 'gay marriage' and seek to undercut the Church's agenda on social questions." [my emphasis in bold]


If what Sirico is saying is, in fact, the reason for Morino's stance, it may be first time union busting has been promoted in the service of anti-abortionism and opposition to gay rights.

While Archbishop Listecki and the other members of the US Catholic Conference of Bishops are certainly anti-abortion, Morlino and Sirico are willing to sacrifice the well being of fellow Catholics and all other workers in order to win their culture war. And if the right for public workers to collectively bargain is ultimately destroyed, it is because a highly attenuated reading of Catholic theology has been employed to serve mammon and not God.

Sirico wants labor crushed and the culture wars expanded.: Gov. Walker is intent on granting him both wishes.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Thu Mar 17, 2011 at 03:45:28 PM EST
I strongly suspect Morlino is more interested in trashing public unions because a high percentage of the members are teachers. Morlino has a much higher vested interest in keeping unions and their thoughts about collective bargaining out of the Catholic school system. Abortion is just an excuse, like it's become an excuse for all kinds of other right wing meddling by our bishops.

by colkoch on Thu Mar 17, 2011 at 08:17:14 PM EST

Listecki's and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' statements were lukewarm lipservice only meant to give the appearance of the U.S. episcopate as being "non-partisan." No U.S. prelate is going to put the political and financial muscle into supporting unions which they so abundantly gave to defeating the health care bill or gay marriage legislations. As khughes63 noted, the "big money boyz" wouldn't like it.

by Betty Clermont on Fri Mar 18, 2011 at 12:56:19 PM EST

He depends on the big money boyz to finance him, and his desired cathedral, and doesn't want to bite the hand that feeds him. Besides, Morlino and the bishops may be able to hold onto their political and religious clout and "win" their culture war, but they have already lost by failing to support working people, and no amount of support for Catholic and Protestant religious right luminaries will recover their lost moral authority due to their concealment of sexual abuse.

by khughes1963 on Thu Mar 17, 2011 at 11:05:24 PM EST

I remember a former Archbishop of Los Angeles who would not allow the workers at Catholic cemetaries to form a union. This flew in the face of Rerum Novarum, which he evidently had not read.
If public workers unions survive, then maybe, just maybe, other unions might rise again. Let's hope so!

by rdrjames on Sun Mar 20, 2011 at 11:26:36 PM EST

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